SUDDENLY that £85 million looks money well spent. Real Madrid’s quest for a tenth Champions League title was finally concluded by the player they made the most expensive in the history of football when they signed him from Tottenham Hotspur last summer.
Scorers (after extra time): Real Madrid; Ramos 90; Bale 110; Marcelo 118; Ronaldo pen 120, Atletico Madrid; Godin 32
Gareth Bale had not had a great match. He’d missed three great chances. But when, with ten minutes of injury-time remaining, Angel Di Maria’s run and shot ended with the ball looping off the leg of Thibaut Courtois, it was the Welshman who was on hand to nod the ball in at the back post.
That broke Atletico. Marcelo drove in from the edge of the box and Cristiano Ronaldo converted a penalty to give the scoreline a misleadingly convincing hue. It also brought Diego Simeone and other members of the Atletico backroom staff on to the field in a little silliness out of keeping with an enthralling game.
It’s estimated that as many as 90,000 fans made the trip from Madrid, many making the journey in an astonishing convoy of around 600 buses and 15,000 cars. Atletico fans filled the bars and restaurants around Parque Eduardo VII with their red-and-white stripes and an obvious excitement. For them, the mood was one of grateful disbelief: implausible league champions after 18 years, and in just their second Champions League final – 40 years after the previous one. Real’s fans were less ostentatious, more restrained, more obviously feeling the pressure as they targetedla decima, their tenth Europeantitle.
Diego Costa, to general surprise, was named in Atletico’s starting line-up, horse placenta having apparently effected a minor miracle on a grade one tear of his hamstring sustained in the draw against Barcelona that secured the title last week. He lasted just under ten minutes, though, before being withdrawn and replaced by Adrian Lopez.
The other major Atletico injury doubt, Arda Turan, didn’t even make it to the bench.
Costa’s departure aside, though, the game began much as Atletico would presumably have wanted it to. They harried and spoiled, denying Real’s midfield space or time and so prevented the game settling into a rhythm or pattern. It was shapeless and scrappy, which was just the way they would have wanted it, while there seemed a clear plan to rattle Ronaldo, the victim of robust early challenges from Miranda and Gabi.
Not until the 32nd minute was there a clear chance, a misplaced pass from Tiago giving Bale the ball in space. He hurtled forward, pace alone taking him past two challenges but with just Courtois to beat, he clipped the ball unexpectedly wide. Bale stood, hunched, arms frozen on their way to his head, as though he couldn’t quite believe he’d missed. Given how few openings there had been, it felt even at time like a costly misjudgment; four minutes later it became clear just how costly.
Atletico have prospered this season with their aerial strength – their reliance on that mode of attack highlighted by its repetitive ineffectiveness against Chelsea in the semi-final – and it was no great surprise that the bulk of their threat came from crosses and set-plays. What was a surprise was that, when Juanfran dinked the ball back over the top after a corner had been half-cleared after 36 minutes, Iker Casillas came wandering off his line. Diego Godin got their first, as he was always going to, and the ball looped into the net despite Casillas’s desperate efforts to backtrack and hook it away. Twelve years ago, when Real had last won the trophy, Casillas, then aged 20, had come off the bench after an injury to Cesar midway through the second half and given a performance that announced his arrival as a top-class keeper; now, having just turned 33, that miscalculation perhaps signals the beginning of the end.
It wasn’t just Casillas who underperformed for Real. Sami Khedira, replacing the suspended Xabi Alonso in just his third game back after a cruciate injury, never quite seemed to have the pace of the game, while Bale and Ronaldo were both quiet. A couple of free-kicks aside, Ronaldo’s only real opportunity came 17 minutes into the second half as he fluffed a header from a Sergio Ramos cross.
Bale, after his fine chance in the first half, was presented with another with 17 minutes remaining, but dragged his shot wide from just inside the box. Four minutes later, he cut into the box again but, confidence seemingly having deserted him, he stabbed his shot tentatively wide of the near post. Karim Benzema, himself a major injury doubt for the game, was anonymous.
In the end, it was Ramos, promoted to centre-forward, who got the equaliser, heading in a corner with the sort of conviction he had shown in twice scoring against Bayern in the semi-final – his sixth goal in his last seven games. Casillas kissed him firmly on the cheek: blushes spared.
Forty years ago, Atletico saw a European Cup final snatched from them by an injury-time equaliser from a centre-back; for Ramos now, read Bayern’s Georg Schwarzenbeck then. Atletico looked shattered, numerous players collapsing with cramp as the exertions of the toughest of seasons caught up with them. Their aim, it became clear, was penalties. They didn’t get there.